More in ’24: In Conversation with Kimberly Dowdell, AIA, NOMAC

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AIA Chicago Executive Director, Jen Masengarb, Assoc. AlA, recently sat down for a conversation with Kimberly Dowdell, AIA, NOMAC, the 100th president of The American Institute of Architects, and the first Black female president in its history.

Jen Masengarb All right, let’s talk about 2024. What are those priorities for your new term as President? 

Kimberly Dowdell Well, I’d like to frame them within the context of my slogan for next year. That slogan is “More in ‘24.” More money. More members. More mission.  

More money: Architects create a tremendous amount of value for our clients, for our communities, for our society. But across the board, we’re not compensated in alignment with the value we create. That causes us to struggle with attracting and retaining strong talent. Young people are savvy when it comes to making career choices, and our starting salaries are just not as competitive as we need them to be.   We must be intentional about articulating the value of what we create and find ways to bring that into our firms and practices so we can compensate people on par with their value. More money is really focused on the intentionality around prosperity. Prosperity is often thought about in the financial sense, which is a big part of it, but it also touches on happiness, work-life balance and more. So just helping architects overall feel that they can prosper in this profession over the long term.

More members: Very simply, the AIA has around 96,000 members today. I will be AIA’s 100th president, which I’m very excited about it, and I would like for us to reach 100,000 members during my presidency. If we can do more, that’s even better!

More mission: With more money and members, we can also more effectively achieve our mission, which is really focused around climate action and equity. 

JM Let’s talk about the national board. What issues are currently on the docket, or looking ahead to 2024, what kinds of big things is the National Board focused on? 

KD We’re really focused on our strategic plan, the priorities that we’ve been talking about for the last few years: Climate action and equity. Finding ways to ensure that those two things are threaded through everything we do is really important. We are also thinking about how to best sustain the AIA for the future. And then as a board, our responsibility is to stay laser-focused on climate action and equity. And also address the question, how do we promote the practice of architecture to really raise the public profile of the architect so that we can have a greater impact in our local community and on the global scale? 

Photo: Stephanie Jensen Photography

JM You are doing a lot of traveling around the country. What are you hearing from other chapters and architects beyond Chicago? 

KD I’ve been previewing the “More in ‘24” concept, and I think there’s a lot of support for it. Just the notion of helping architects articulate their value and promote that is resonating. It’s been encouraging to get that feedback. In general, people want to know what AIA is doing, not just in the country but around the world. There’s been a large focus on international growth and finding ways to bring in members from literally every corner of the globe. Many conversations have been around what we’re doing with climate action and DEI. 

Another theme that I’d like to weave into what I do next year is helping to inspire people, or reinspire them. It takes a lot of inspiration to want to become an architect and certainly to navigate all of the training and experience and testing that it takes to become an architect. But for those who maybe have lost that inspiration because of whatever reason, how do we reinvigorate that? How do we inspire people to go back into their work with joy? 

JM Agreed. I see that here at the local level all the time too in terms of how the 9-to-5 or 9-to-9 or whatever it is, is difficult. And how do we provide a space where we can celebrate with each other, we can find joy in the work, we can support each other. [Where] we can also talk about the hard things that are not going well in the profession that we can find some solutions. And that community that you talked about. That’s one of the reasons why we borrowed Guess-A-Sketch this year from AIA New York, because it hit a lot of those things: bringing people together, celebrating the joy of architecture, doing some things that are fun, collaborative, competitive a little bit. Our members spend the day thinking about really hard things: health, safety, welfare, running a business, etc. And so while that is the primary role of our work at AIA, I also think it’s good to come together as a community for other things, too, and be inspired as you said.  

KD And I think also expanding the community. It’s no secret that we as a profession are not the most diverse group out there. I mean, there are only 122,000 licensed architects. There are more attorneys than that in the state of California. So, we’re a small but mighty group. But it would be great to find ways to expand the pool of architects, particularly the number of women and people of color. As you know, I was the president of NOMA (The National Organization of Minority Architects) for a few years recently. In that context, I got to know the numbers intimately. African American architects have comprised just 2% of our profession for the 50-plus years we’ve been keeping track. We’re seeing the number of women and the percentage of women increase, which is great. But there’s still a lot more work to do. A lot of our focus has been about empowering women and people of color and people from marginalized groups to step into leadership in their AIA chapter or through a committee or knowledge community.  One of the cool things about being an architect is having the ability to see and create a better future, and the more people who are empowered to do that, the better outcomes we’ll see across the board. 

JM I’m so glad you did step into that leadership role. 

KD Thank you! Shortly after I was elected, I received a letter from a second-year architecture student at an HBCU, a young woman. I don’t remember all the words in the letter, but the one sentence that stood out that I don’t think I’ll ever forget is, “Because you were elected, I feel like my dreams are possible.” And that really drove it home, why it was important that I step forward and do this. Representation matters. People seeing themselves reflected in leadership empowers them to do things that maybe they didn’t think were possible before. As the first Black woman to be elected, I think it resonates with certain people who had not historically seen themselves represented. I think a lot of Black women, a lot of women of all backgrounds — and even men — are like: “It’s really cool that you’re able to represent this portion of the profession that has not typically been seen.” I’m also the first of the Millennial generation. So people who are sort of on the fence about whether or not it’s time to step up and serve, they can hopefully see themselves in my coming into this position at a somewhat untraditional age. 

JM That’s incredibly inspiring, and I’m glad that you did step forward. 

KD I’m grateful to the membership for electing me, and I hope to serve everyone well for the next year. 

Photo: Stephanie Jensen Photography

JM We also have a couple other firsts. We’ve got three women AIA National Presidents in a row. That has not happened before. Two women-of-color Presidents, back-to-back, with Evelyn Lee coming in in 2025, also a historic first. It was really, really great to see the three of you together up on stage. 

KD Boston was a lot of fun. We had over 900 people, yes, mostly women. We had some men there too, so I want to acknowledge everyone who showed up and expressed their support. 

JM So let’s talk about the Women’s Leadership Summit. What were your experiences in Boston this year? What’s there to build on? What are you looking forward to next year? 

KD More — more in 24. It’s good to know there is demand. We certainly will make sure that the venue next year in Chicago is appropriate for a larger crowd. But more inspiration, I think, is a big part of what I gathered from  Boston. Seeing people latch onto, and just be really captivated by, the women on the stage. Seeing how motivated people have become just based on the conversations that are being had and, you know, helping to empower not only themselves, but one another was a really magical aspect of the Women’s Leadership Summit. 

JM I did a firm visit yesterday at a local small firm, and the firm owner attended in Boston. I asked her what her thoughts were and what she took away. She’s a regular attendee of the national conference, so she’s seen all the different kinds of variations of gathering large numbers of architects together. And she said it was interesting to be at a conference and not talk about buildings per se, but the making of buildings, the practice of architecture, what it means to be an architect from a distinct lens, obviously, as the Women’s Leadership Summit. But she found that just very refreshing. It wasn’t about architecture, it was about “architecting,” and the practice of creating architecture and what that means. I think there’s something to build on there. 

KD One of the most fascinating things about being a woman in architecture, particularly in AIA leadership, and having many other women in similar roles, whether it be the CEO or president, current president, president-elect — that whole kind of succession — is we have to text each other [about] what we’re planning to wear, so that we don’t wear the same thing, which is something that I don’t think men have typically done. It’s just an interesting new thing. So Lakisha [Ann Woods, AIA EVP/Chief Executive Officer], Emily [Grandstaff-Rice, AIA President], and I, last year we started a group text. We’re like, alright, so which dresses are you wearing when or which outfits, or colors, or whatever. 

JM I’m going to go back to NOMA. You mentioned your learnings from that. Now you will be in also a unique position that you will have led these two large member-based organizations. What do you see as collaboration, cooperation with NOMA and AIA in the years to come? We’re doing more collaborations locally here, which is very exciting. We share a lot of members. The organizations are both valuable in their mission, but what do you see at the national level in terms of cooperation and collaboration? 

KD It’s not about just NOMA and AIA. I think it’s about that entire ecosystem and finding ways to solve some of the diversity matters with everyone around the table. It’s about being intentional in working together and breaking down the silos to create a forum for all of the different organizations to bring their strengths and resources together to create a more diverse profession. 

Photo: Stephanie Jensen Photography

JM I think that phrase “be intentional” is really key. Regardless of the partnership, but especially with groups like NOMA, Arquitectos, etc., how do we be intentional? That’s something that’s really important that we all need to work on. 

I’m going to wrap up with two more questions here. You’ve lived in several cities across the US and practiced architecture in different corners of the country. What’s different about Chicago, or is there anything different about Chicago in this architectural community here? 

KD So, I’ve lived in seven different cities — six in the US — with Chicago being the most recent. Chicago takes architecture very seriously. That’s not to say the other cities don’t, but, it’s different here. I happen to be on the Board for the Chicago Architecture Biennial, which is super unique to Chicago, to have a biennial. Just walking around the city, you can tell that there’s been intentionality around how everything is planned.   

JM I often think of it almost as another sport. Where people have their favorite teams, people watch the progress of, you know, buildings going up. Taxi drivers know the names of buildings. That doesn’t happen in a lot of other cities. 

KD We should have jerseys, like, “The Chicago Architects.” 

JM What are you most excited about in 2024, just in general? 

KD I’m excited about having conversations around what architects can do to improve society. I’m personally interested in improving health outcomes and health equity. Here in Chicago, there’s a 30-year life expectancy gap between the North Side and the South Side. Bringing greater attention to not just that issue, but also what specifically architects can do to help contribute to our duty, which is to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public. So, looking at elevating those conversations and helping to empower architects to find ways to contribute to solving some of their communities’ biggest issues. 

JM Anything else you want to add that we didn’t talk about? 

KD I did have this initiative that I wanted to promote for next year for every city in the US to have a chief architect, which used to be a thing, but then it went away decades ago. I’d like for us to look at ways to even maybe connect that role with the health equity or health disparity conversation.  

I’d like to find a way to create a template for chapters to write, “Dear Mayor XYZ, we would love for you to consider…” And then here are some resources. So that’s something that’s kind of not necessarily ready for public consumption yet, but it’s something I think would be great to focus on.  

Another thing is really improving the procurement process for design services. In my prior role as Marketing Principal in the Chicago studio of HOK, I saw firsthand that there are a lot of inefficiencies that cost architecture firms too much time, energy, and resources. In my new firmwide role, I’m having many more conversations about how the marketing efforts are impacting our business. This issue translates to firms of all sizes across the country. So maybe just establishing and publishing some best practices around procurement for architectural services could help us make some positive changes. 

JM I think that could be really important, especially to a state chapter to really lean into. 

KD Those things are kind of bubbling to the top. But overall, “More in 24.” More money, more members, more mission. And intentionality, inspiration, and, actually borrowing from our CEO EVP Lakisha [Ann Woods], balance. Because there’s a lot to do. But we have to balance that with our resources, both in people/bandwidth and financial resources, and just know we can’t do everything all at once. 

JM Thanks for all that you’re doing now. Thanks for all that you’re going to do next year. Not only for your vision and leadership of the profession, but for all the travel and the speaking, listening to members, and asking the hard questions. Thank you. 

KD Thank you. I appreciate the conversation. 

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